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Obama ending ban on gays serving openly in the military

'Don't ask, don't tell' will end Sept. 20, but the Pentagon is still struggling with major issues such as benefits, housing and discrimination complaints.

July 23, 2011|By David S. Cloud, Washington Bureau
  • Active and former military service members march in San Diego's Gay Pride Parade earlier this month. President Obama has ordered that the the ban on gays serving openly in the military be abolished Sept. 20
Active and former military service members march in San Diego's Gay… (Mike Blake, Reuters )

Reporting from Washington — As the Obama administration moves to end the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military, the Pentagon is still grappling with major questions about how it will integrate them into the ranks.

President Obama notified Congress on Friday that the ban would be abolished on Sept. 20 and said that it could be done without harming the military's readiness. Congress required the certification when it voted in December to repeal the 17-year-old policy that requires discharging openly gay and lesbian service members.

"As commander in chief, I have always been confident that our dedicated men and women in uniform would transition to a new policy in an orderly manner that preserves unit cohesion, recruitment, retention and military effectiveness," Obama said in a statement.

But numerous issues remain about extending benefits to gays and lesbians, same-sex housing and how the military will resolve discrimination complaints by gay service members. Those challenges are likely to remain sources of tension, lawsuits and policy controversy for years, according to legal experts and gay rights activists.

Even more uncertain is how quickly a conservative institution that for years has forced gays to keep their sexual orientation secret — and often tolerated homophobic slurs — can adapt to a new environment in which gays will live and work openly with straight service members, including in combat.

"This is the most significant cultural change that the troops will encounter since women were admitted to the service academies and President Truman signed the executive order outlawing segregation," said Aubrey Sarvis, the executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, an organization that represents gay service members. "There are going to be some bumps in the road, perhaps some disruptions, but I believe these will be isolated incidents."

Marine Maj. Gen. Steve Hummer, who leads the Pentagon team implementing the repeal, said Friday that 1.9 million service members — more than half the military's active-duty and reserve force — have completed anti-harassment training since March. Most of the rest are likely to complete the training by the end of September, he said.

With the lifting of the ban, "there will be zero tolerance for harassment, violence or discrimination of any kind," said Clifford L. Stanley, the Defense Department undersecretary for personnel and readiness.

But current law prohibits the Pentagon from offering many health, housing and education benefits to married same-sex couples. The major impediments are the Defense of Marriage Act, which prohibits giving federal benefits to same-sex couples, and a separate federal statute governing the armed forces that defines a spouse as a "husband" or a "wife."

Sarvis said he was hopeful that senior military officers would urge Congress to revise the statutes, but he acknowledged that could be a difficult fight, especially with Republicans in control of the House, "because it might be seen as a back door" way of getting Congress to recognize same-sex marriage.

Gay rights activists also are urging Obama to issue an executive order explicitly banning discrimination against gay and lesbian service members, extending them the same protections available to women and minorities in uniform. Hummer said he did not think such an order was necessary.

Pentagon officials have said that discrimination complaints related to sexual orientation can be raised up the chain of command or with the inspector general, but that they do not envision making gay and lesbian service members a "protected class," as women and minorities are, which would enable them to lodge formal employment discrimination complaints.

"You're depending on your commander to be fair and to take care of you, and in most cases that will be sufficient," but in "those rare cases where there will be alleged or real discrimination," specific protections are needed, Sarvis said.

Young service members are much more comfortable with the idea of serving with openly gay comrades than those who have been in the military for decades, several analysts said. But opposition to lifting the ban remains prevalent in some parts of the military, especially combat units, Pentagon surveys suggest.

Unit commanders will have latitude to shift room assignments and take other steps to separate gay and straight soldiers, but Pentagon officials said there would be no separate facilities or quarters based on sexual orientation.

Elaine Donnelly, who heads the Center for Military Readiness, a group that opposed efforts to repeal the ban, said in a statement: "History will hold accountable President Obama, members of the previous lame-duck Congress, and gay activists who misused the federal courts in order to impose … policies that will undermine morale and readiness in the all-volunteer force."

More than 13,000 service members have been discharged from the military because of their sexual orientation since Congress passed a statute in 1993 prohibiting openly gay service members from serving.

Jeremy Johnson, a 10-year Navy veteran who was discharged in 2007 after disclosing he was gay, said in an interview that, at least initially, disparities in benefits would matter less to gay and lesbian service members than to activists, who have long pressed for the military to adopt nondiscriminatory policies.

With the lifting of the ban imminent, Johnson has applied to rejoin the Navy as a reservist.

"Folks who are interested in full equality will push harder for benefits now," he said. "But for those who want to go back in, it's not about the benefits."

david.cloud@latimes.com

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